Why Men Treat Female Bosses Differently Than Their Male Counterparts

A recent study found that this issue is embedded in work culture, making it harder for women to progress into leadership roles.
April 11, 2017, 11:45am
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

We're told over and over again that more women are needed in leadership roles in business. It's proven to be good for companies to promote women and positive for society as a whole.

That said, we know there are myriad structural and cultural issues that prevent women from rising up the ranks—from women being unfairly burdened by domestic work, to their apparently destructive lack of self-confidence, to the fact that women simply aren't believed to be as competent as men, despite all the evidence to the contrary.


One area that has been less explored, and could be seriously holding women back from progressing into leadership roles, is how subordinates treat their female superiors.

Over a series of three experiments, Dr. Leah Sheppard from Washington State University, Dr. Maryam Kouchaki from Northwestern University, and Dr. Ekaterina Netchaeva from Bocconi University discovered many men in subordinate positions feel threatened by female superiors and behave more assertively toward them than they would a male manager.

In the first test, participants completed a computer exercise in which they interacted with either a hypothetical male or female boss to negotiate a salary offer of $28,500. Men interacting with female managers provided significantly higher counteroffers than when interacting with male ones—$49,400 versus $42,870. Whereas female participants provided an average counteroffer of $41,636 and didn't differ significantly depending on their manager's gender.

Researchers then investigated the hypothesis that men felt threatened by female managers by asking all participants to take a test in which they had to guess words that appeared on a screen—a format commonly used to assess if bias is present. The researchers found men who were faced with female bosses were more likely to see words such as "fear" and "risk"—indicators that the men felt threatened, even if they didn't admit or recognize it.

WATCH: Recruiting Marine Women

For the second experiment, male participants had to decide how to split a $10,000 bonus among a group of colleagues. Researchers found men divided it just about equally between male and female co-workers—a welcome example of fairness amid otherwise troubling findings. But don't hold your breath: The men then gave male managers about half the pot and took a whopping $500 more for themselves when asked to split it with a female manager.

Here seems a sensible place to mention that women are still paid significantly less than men for the same job, despite this being illegal in the EU, the US, and elsewhere for decades.


Finally, researchers studied how participants would split the $10,000 bonus with female superiors described as "proactive" and "direct," as opposed to "self-promoting" and "power-seeking." The team found men penalized female supervisors in the latter group even more harshly, keeping a larger share of the bonus for themselves.

In summary, the results showed men reacted more assertively with female superiors regardless of how "power-seeking" they were perceived to be but penalized women who were more obviously ambitious even harder. It's probably worth ruminating on the implications of that trend—Hillary Clinton's pant-suited loss to Trump versus Theresa May's smiling, studiously nonthreatening win when meeting the president—but is the disparity then down to women's management style, or is it simply how men react to female superiors more generally?

"We need to be able to connect masculinity and femininity, so instead of seeing these as opposite constructs, shouldn't we really see the ideal manager has elements of both?"

Sheppard said: "I definitely think it's how men react [generally to female superiors], because women are very aware of the stereotypes that surround them and of how negative the consequences can be when they violate any of their gender norms. Women try to take a very cooperative and collaborative leadership style. And actually, the research indicates women are more likely to demonstrate 'transformational' leadership, which is really about connecting with your followers and modeling the type of behavior you want them to engage in and making sure that your followers have an understanding of the bigger meaning of what you're doing."

It appears that women fear being viewed as "weak" for not acting as assertively as their male colleagues, knowing they won't get that promotion if they don't pursue it, while continually running the risk of being branded as "power-hungry" and becoming a target for unfairly assertive behavior. As it stands, in order to reach the dizzying heights of business success, women have to be far smoother operators than men vying for—or working in—the same positions.


So how can businesses support women and address the problem?

"We're thinking so much about getting women into positions of power and trying to mitigate these reactions toward them, when really we need to change the perception of what is a prototypical leader," said Sheppard. "We need to also be able to connect masculinity and femininity, so instead of seeing these as opposite constructs, shouldn't we really see the ideal [manager] has elements of both? Right now we clearly have a hierarchy between masculinity and femininity, wherein masculinity is more highly valued. So we should focus on how we can bring these two things closer to one another in terms of value.

"Male leaders who have the opportunity to be role models for other men in organizations, they should be doing things like making sure they have a collaborative leadership style, making sure they take time out when they have a child, and making sure they engage in behaviors that are maybe more stereotypically feminine to show that there's nothing wrong with being more nurturing. Then we will get to a point when it's not about the gender of the supervisor any longer—when it's more accepted that a leader is going to have both masculine and feminine components."

Essentially, men need to be able to be more collaborative, and women need to be able to be viewed as ambitious, without either feeling in fear of being penalized for acting outside of their gender norms.

Photo via Wikicommons user Another Believer

Ken Cooper, global head of HR at Bloomberg—a financial software, data, and media giant considered one of the world's best employers for women—said the business had pro-actively implemented development and leadership initiatives to address what they knew to be a very common bias.

"[These] help our employees understand how unconscious bias affects their interactions with colleagues, and our perceptions around the different ways men and women lead," he said in an email. "We also teach our managers how to lead diverse teams, providing them with the tools to manage and react to a variety of biases, including gender."

While we contacted a dozen companies for comment—all of which claimed to instill a pro-women work culture, with most admitting to having knowledge of the problem off the record—only Bloomberg was happy to address the issue publicly.

Taking light relief in the assumption that millennials are more likely to hold feminist principles is unfortunately not an option, as Sheppard said there was no evidence of younger men being more likely to treat male and female managers fairly than the generation before them. So in order to stop women negotiating this uphill struggle alone, businesses need to face up to the fact that their female staff—regardless of their management style—are more likely to be subjected to assertive behavior from their male subordinates than men in the same position.

This is undoubtedly an issue to be addressed across every industry with female workers if women are to gain and hold more leadership positions and even—as the bonus splitting experiment indicates—to finally gain equal pay for equal work. Until then, we are setting women up to fail.

Follow Sophia Rahman on Twitter.